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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Things to Come



THINGS TO COME (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.K.: William Cameron Menzies, 1936 (Criterion Collection)

The two great early Godfathers of literary science fiction were the fanciful Frenchman Jules Verne and the immensely-learned and opionated Britisger H. G. Wells. But though both of these writers have been adapted endlessly for the movies, only one of them wrote a science-fiction screenplay, adapted from one of his own books. That was Wells, the author of  The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The First Men in the Moon — And of The Shape of Things to Come, a future history of the world, written as from the 22nd century, that Wells — along with director William Cameron Menzies, producer Alexander Korda, set designer Vincent Korda, cinematographer Georges Perinal, montage expert Laszlo Moholy-Nagy , composer Arthur Bliss and actors Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke and the others — made into what was, after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the most spectacular of all ’20s and ’30 sci-fi movies, a visual marvel that is still is capable today of eliciting gasps and instilling wonderment.

The 2001 of its day, Things to Come purports to predict the future — thanks to its author Wells, who, as  advertised by  his more than one hundred books of fiction, fact and extrapolation, was widely heralded throughout the world as  a modern Nostradamus and a master of scientific speculation. Wells’ involvement insured that the movie would be taken seriously — and not pegged as another Flash Gordon, or even as another Metropolis.

The movie begins on a  Christmas Eve of the present, on the brink of an impending world war, which, in a remarkable precursor of the actual World War II Blitz, soon makes a bombed-out wreck of “Everytown,“ the Londonish metropolis where, presumably, Everymen and women live, and where almost all the film takes place. Wells’ chronicle skips from one generation to the next, spamming about over a hundred years, and, though missing the cell-phone and the Internet, predicting a host of other scientific advances, the most prominent of which include a rocket to the moon, sleeping gas and a new world order, a society founded on airplanes, from which heroic scientists will direct the world‘s work and make sure that war and crime, at least in the future, are things of the past.

Wells’ movie has good scientists — Raymond Massey as John Cabal and his aeronaut grandson Oswald — and a bad dictator: Ralph Richardson as the brutal and  Rabelaisian Boss, who runs things and pleasures himself,  and is against any scientific and  political progress unless he can run hat too. And there’s a loudmouth, dead-wrong TV commentator: Cedric Hardwicke as Theotocopulos, a kind of Luddite who uses television to foment and lead a revolt against science, progress and space travel. .

There are things that don’t quite work in Things to Come, the most prominent of which is the 70-year-old Wells’ stiff and preachy dialogue, which, as spoken by Massey (pompously), Richardson (lustily, with Shakespearean gusto), and Hardwicke (dourly), rarely sounds either real or properly dramatic. What does work though is the film‘s extraordinary, often mind-blowing visual design. Director Menzies was one of the cinema‘s great art director/designers (his masterpieces of design include Gone With the Wind and the Doug Fairbanks Thief of Baghdad — and he and Korda create here an overpowering new world  of futuristic sights and sounds, — of imaginary visions of industry, war, aeronautics and lifestyles that,, almost 80 years after the film’s release, still exerts a hypnotic spell.

Not always. As speculation or drama, Things to Come, despite some bull’s-eyes, now sometimes looks and sounds a bit antique, as almost all old science fiction does, sooner or later, including 2001. But Wells‘; historical sweep and range of thought are still impressive and provocative, and Menzies and Korda‘s designs and visions are impressive too. If the movies are, in great part, a visual art, Menzies was certainly one of the great artists. His and Wells’ Things to Come may have its flaws, its pomposities. But it’s also full of dreams and  wonders and flights of fancy and (would be) fact. One watches these dreams of things to come, from the man who wrote The Time Machine and the man who painted Gone with the Wind, still amazed.

Extras: Fine, informative, lively commentary by David Kalat; Interview with Christopher Frayling on the show’s design; Visual essay by Bruce Eder; on Bliss’s score; Unused special effects footage by Moholy-Nagy; 1936 recording of a reading from Wells; Booklet with an excellent new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, editor of the Library of America.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon